Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood: Past and present

It is necessary to analyze the history of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood to understand its role in the current crisis.

al-monitor The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's then-leader Ali al-Bayanouni (L) and former Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam hold a news conference in Brussels, March 17, 2006.  Photo by REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.


syrian crisis, syrian conflict, syria, muslim brotherhood in syria, muslim brotherhood, history

ينا 5, 2014

The founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria was officially announced on Feb. 3, 1945, by virtue of its registration with the Ministry of Interior and the issuance of the Brotherhood’s manifesto. The founding of the movement was the outcome of the formation of Islamist organizations in several provinces over the course of a decade. According to the distribution of the delegates at the founding conference held in Yabrud on Sept. 1, 1946, the Brotherhood’s concentration points stretched from the Damascus countryside (Barzeh, Daraya, al-Tall, Mineen, Zamalka, Yabrud, Nabak) to the cities of Aleppo, Latakia and Deir el-Zour, and then all the way to coastal towns such as al-Haffa and Banias. The conference included figures from the cities of Damascus, Homs and Hama. Leading figures were distributed between Homs (Al-Azhar University graduate Sheikh Mustafa al-Sibai assumed the position of Comptroller General), Hama (Sheikh Mohammad al-Shaqfeh and Sheikh Mohammed Hamed) and Aleppo (Omar Baha al-Amiri, a member of a traditionally prestigious family in Aleppo which had endowments. His father was a member of the Chamber of Deputies of the Ottoman Empire; Amiri is a literature graduate from Sorbonne University).

This triple combination — a graduate from Al-Azhar, two traditional sheikhs and a graduate of a French university but from a rich traditional family — reflected the concerns of an old social structure composed of members from a religious institution whose position on social transformation and the Western intellectual waves of modernity had become shaky in the post-Ottoman period.

In Latakia, during the founding period, some Muslim Brotherhood members hailed from middle-class traditional families and from popular districts. However, these members were educated and had graduated from universities or institutes. This was also the case in Deir el-Zour. In Damascus, members were mostly from rural regions which nevertheless were developed in terms of agriculture and handicrafts. The Brotherhood was also present in traditional districts like al-Midan. Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood figures from traditional families subsequently assumed leadership positions (Issam al-Attar and Zuhair Shawish) or became very close to the organization (Dr. Mohammad al-Mubarak, an academic from a traditional family related ​​to Emir Abdelkader el-Djezairi, who had lived in Damascus since the 1850s)

Sheikh Sibai was a local link between the Egyptian Brotherhood — the mother organization — and the Syrian organization. The founding process was under the direct supervision of Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. In spite of this, some distinctions could be made between the Syrian and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood organizations. The former was more open to pan-Arabism and social components (in the 1949 and 1962 elections, the Brotherhood electoral lists included Christian candidates). They were also more open to the political moderation that emerged in the 1950s between the left-wing Communist-Baathist camp and the right-wing camp supporting the West and Baghdad. It is worth mentioning that Baghdad wanted to implement the Fertile Crescent Project, which included a varied spectrum ranging from the People's Party in Aleppo all the way to Syrian Nationalists. Even though in the summer of 1957 Sheikh Sibai, and subsequently Issam al-Attar, became president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Executive Office following the blow dealt by the Egyptian leadership to the organization in 1954, Sibai remained cooperative with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and supported the process of Egyptian-Syrian unity. In 1959, he wrote The Socialism of Islam, which was an intellectual-Islamist justification of the agrarian reform (September 1958). The reform was opposed by many members of traditional families and by sheikhs. Following the [military] coup on Sept. 28, 1961, the Brotherhood refused to sign the document approving Syria's secession [from the United Arab Republic].

With Sibai’s illness and Attar’s leadership during and after the secession period, shifts occurred inside the Muslim Brotherhood. The movement in Syria became more inclined toward the traditional right wing, including the People's Party and the National Party against the Nasserist-Baathist left wing. Concurrently, a book by prominent writer Sheikh Muhammad al-Hameed from Hama, in response to Sheikh Sibai's book, showed signs of new Brotherhood radicalism against the moderation and openness of Sibai. This radicalism was adopted by Sheikh Hameed’s pupils from Hama, such as Marwan Hadeed and Said Hawwa, who led the Hama Riot against the Baath Party authority in April 1964.

The radicalization of the Brotherhood was a Hama characteristic under Baath authority. Hadeed led the secession of the Brotherhood's Hama branch in 1969-1975, until in early 1975 he founded the Al-Tali'a al-Muqatila [Fighting Vanguard] Group before his arrest on June 30, 1975, and subsequent death due to a hunger strike in August 1976.


Secession occurred within the Brotherhood between the Damascus and Aleppo branches because Sheikh Marwan Hadeed and members from Hama had gone to receive weapons training in Fatah training camps in Jordan in 1969. Thus, when the Egyptian leadership and Muslim Brotherhood International Organization approved the unification of the General Organization of the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria in summer of 1975, Sheikh Marwan Hadeed, his organization and the Damascus branch headed by Attar were excluded. The new Cairo-recognized Muslim Brotherhood leaders were from Hama (Adnan Saadeddin) and Aleppo (Abd al-Fattah Abu Ghudda and Ali Sadreddine al-Bayanouni). The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria had a significant presence in Hama, Aleppo, Latakia and towns of Idlib province, but not Idlib city.

The Muslim Brotherhood of Syria of the 1970s showed new features: poor moderation and prevailing radicalism. Moreover, Attar and his branch were the weakest in the 1970s, while the General Organization was more intellectually radical than the Egyptian organization at the time and closer to the ideas of Sayyid Qutb than to those of Banna, Hassan Hudaybi and Omar el-Telmesani. The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria distanced itself from Al-Tali'a al-Muqatila Group, which had begun an assassination spree since the assassination of Maj. Mohammed Ghurra, head of the military security branch in Hama, in February 1976.

The armed Muslim Brotherhood opposition broke out on June 16, 1979, with the massacre at Aleppo Artillery School carried out by Marwan Hadeed’s organization. The General Organization joined the armed struggle and Attar’s branch took up arms. The three branches of the Brotherhood were unified in December 1980. Thus, the main social structure of the Brotherhood Movement in the June 1979-February 1982 events, until the defeat of the armed Brotherhood movement in Hama, basically included members from Hama, Aleppo, towns from Idlib and the rural areas of Hawran, Damascus and Aleppo, where the overall atmosphere was more inclined to support the regime against the armed Brotherhood movement.

Between February 1982 and March 18, 2011, the Syrian Brotherhood organization was actually an organization operating from outside Syrian borders: On March 11, 1982, it entered into an alliance with the Iraqi Baath Party to form the National Alliance for the Liberation of Syria, after refusing pressures exerted by Iraqi leadership since the summer of 1980. Moreover, during their period of strength, the Brotherhood took a hostile position toward the opposing Democratic Movement in the period after the first declaration of the National Democratic Rally on March 18, 1980. Between 1986 and 1996, the Brotherhood was divided into two organizational concepts that had two different orbits: Riyadh and Baghdad. The first, the Aleppo branch, was more moderate and inclined to engage in talks with the regime in Germany in 1987. The second, the Hama-Idlib branch, was more radical and disagreed with the first organization on supporting Iraq during the invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

When reunited in 1996 under the leadership of Ali al-Bayanouni, and in light of the weakness of Baghdad, moderation and the pursuit of settlement with the regime were two major aspects of Bayanouni’s policy. In January 2009, the Muslim Brotherhood even announced that its opposition to the Syrian regime was halted. This occurred following an accidental and occasional radicalism in Bayanouni’s policy, with the Hariri crisis that pushed him to participate in the Damascus Declaration of October 2005 and in the Salvation Front in June 2006 with the defected Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam.

In August 2010, a coup was staged against the Syrian Brotherhood leadership after the Brotherhood’s Shura Council appointed three figures from Hama to its main positions: Mohammed Riad al-Shaqafah was appointed comptroller general, Farouk Tayfur his deputy and Mohammed Hatem al-Tabshi head of the Shura Council. Thoseey were more intransigent than the Aleppo branch toward Bayanouni.

When the Syrian crisis erupted in Daraa on March 18, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood had only an external presence. Its strength in the Syrian National Council (Oct. 2, 2011-Nov. 11, 2012) was granted by Ankara and Doha rather than from the Syrian interior. It turned out that Salafists were stronger than the Brotherhood in 2011-2013 than they had been from 1979-1982. This is mainly due to the fact that, in terms of its social structure, the Syrian opposition movement was a rural movement and not an urban one.

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المزيد من Mohammad Saied Rassas